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July 22, 2015

John Perlin PV Miniseries #14: How Public Policy Matters

April 9th, 2015 by Glenn Meyers

This series was published on CleanTechnica.

Our interview with John Perlin continues for this segment of photovoltaics miniseries. In our 13th post, Mr. Perlin said, “Reagan came into office and declared war on solar technologies, which led the National Science Foundation’s chief scientist Lloyd Herwig to declare, instead of the United States, the Japanese and Germans would take over the market.”Our series on PV provides tremendous background on the technology, and highlights the UN’s 2015 Year of Light.


perlinIf you haven’t read it, Perlin’s book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy,” provides an excellent backgrounder on the history of solar energy. This series details much about how the industry evolved to its present-day status.




For those missing info on this miniseries, here are previously published episodes:

Author John Perlin Celebrates the Coming Year of Light
Author John Perlin & the Solar Cell
The Pathway to Today’s Solar Revolution: Discovering the Photosensitivity of Selenium
Photovoltaics Discovered in 1875: Interview with Author John Perlin
Photovoltaic Dreaming: First Attempts at Commercializing PV
Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics Part 1
Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics – Part 2
John Perlin Miniseries #8: Photovoltaics: Saved by Silicon – Part 1
Photovoltaics Miniseries #9: Saved by Silicon – Part 2
Photovoltaics Miniseries #10: World’s First Practical Solar Cell Victim to Exigencies of Cold War
Photovoltaics Miniseries #11: Nixon’s Solargate
Photovoltaics Miniseries #12: Jimmy Carter’s War Against PV
John Perlin’s Photovoltaics Miniseries #13: Reagan Nukes Solar

John Perlin’s PV Miniseries #14: How Public Policy Matters

A physicist and teacher, Perlin has long been a proponent or solar energy. He reports not all has gone seamlessly for many solar innovators and their enthusiasts. Our interview continues with this in mind.

CleanTechnica: The solar cell was a remarkable technology that must have excited many, even if it failed to gain traction with our presidents. As you have said before, Daryl Chapin, one of the inventors of the silicon solar cell, published the first text on PV. Correct?

Perlin: Yes. He provided a kit for constructing a silicon solar cell, and advised his readers, mainly high school students, that though the solar cell they would make “delivers only 10 milliwatts , don’t be discouraged. We are standing near the beginning of a new era of solar uses.”

CleanTechnica: But it marked a beginning, correct?

Perlin: Absolutely. The first silicon solar cells were feeble. At the time of the public announcement in 1954 [of their availability] they consisted of a number of cells that delivered less than 1 watt. This increased to a megawatt by 1980.

CleanTechnica: But by then President Reagan declared war against solar, as you stated in your previous article, leading to the National Science Foundation’s lead solar advisor Lloyd Herwig’s dire prediction that Japan and Germany would take over the market solar.

Perlin: Sadly, his prediction came to pass. Starting in 1994, the Japanese government offered a generous subsidy to encourage the adoption of PV on the nation’s rooftops. By the time the program had ended in 2004 almost 400,000 Japanese households had installed PV, totaling a little over a gigawatt.

Perlin: Following the Social Democratic/Green victory in 1999, a new chapter in the story of photovoltaics began. The coalition cobbled together the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000, which committed the German nation “to facilitate a sustainable development of energy supply in the interest of managing global warming.” This was specifically, in support of photovoltaic’s. Its authors believed, “the long-term the use of solar radiation energy holds the greatest potential for providing an energy supply which does not have adverse impact on climate.”

Soon Germany eclipsed Japan’s top position in the international photovoltaic market. Once again, governmental policy led the charge.

CleanTechnica: You contend the growth of the solar PV market in both Japan and Germany was fueled via government programs?

Perlin: Yes. The key to the success of the Renewable Energy Sources Act was the premium offered that those using photovoltaics when selling their electricity to the grid. This new interaction is now known as the “Feed-in Tariff.”

CleanTechnica: Please elaborate on the net effect of the Feed-in Tariff.

Perlin: This generous offering opened the flood gates to using photovoltaics. PV use grew 40% in the first four years of the act, and by 2004 the production of solar cells broke the one gigawatt barrier.

The authoritative PV Status Report of 2005 attributed the act “as the driver of this growth. International markets associated with PV responded positively. Production of the essential feedstock for solar cells exploded. The Chinese government, eyeing great potential for selling to the German solar market, offered tens of billions of dollars in soft loans to entrepreneurs willing to expand module production. Innovations flourished. The result – better cells, cheaper cells.

Summing up the impact of the German program, the investment group the Motley Fool stated, “Germany decided it was time to make a big bet on solar. The country heavily subsidized the industry to make it economically viable long-term. The bet paid off.”

December 12, 2014

Looking at the Beauty of the Solar Cell: John Perlin Interview

In a discussion today about solar energy and the coming Year of Light, author John Perlin helped enlighten me about the importance of the solar cell (photovoltaic systems) as a source for renewable electrical energy. What is the single most significant consideration in designing a PV system, as opposed to a solar thermal system that is founded using multiple heliostats? The answer: PV functions without requiring moving parts.

Perlin, author of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy, elaborates here on the solar cell:

Year of Light and the Solar Cell

Most consider the solar cell as just another device for producing energy. But this is just not the case. Solar cells are something special, nothing less than a revolution in power generation.

As Science magazine observed almost forty years ago, “If there is a dream solar technology, it is photovoltaics – solar cells – at once the most sophisticated solar technology and simplest, most benign source of electricity yet conceived.”

Solar History


Daryl Chapin

Daryl Chapin, one of the inventors of the silicon solar cell – the first solar cell capable of directly converting enough sunlight for practical purposes – realized from the beginning the significance, writing: “It is clearly wasteful to convert solar radiation into heat and reconvert it into electricity or mechanical motion. This is one reason why scientists eagerly welcome any information about a direct conversion of solar energy to electricity even though early results are competitive economically in special cases. Cost reduction and other improvements can come later. The important fact is that more than 10% of the sun’s total radiant energy can be delivered as electrical energy into a load without moving parts and without wasteful prior conversion to heat energy.”

The New York Times, like Chapin, celebrated the birth of the silicon solar cell in 1954, as “the beginning of a new era, leading to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

Bell Laboratories, where the semiconductor era began, predicted that its two semiconductor inventions – the transistor and the silicon solar cell – would be “closely linked in many important future developments that will profoundly influence the art of living.”


December 8, 2014

Author John Perlin Celebrates The Coming Year Of Light

Filed under: Renewable Energy — Glenn @ 9:42 pm

From CleanTechnica

To foster greater understanding of how we harness sunlight, we will celebrate the UN’s coming International Year of Light by culling from John Perlin’s “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy.” Perlin’s work is the only book that has thoroughly chronicled the development and application of solar throughout, focusing on key themes, people and events that have laid the foundation for an enduring Solar Age.

perlin (1)

I will start this engaging study describing the Year of Light, as envisioned by the UN, followed with an introductory Q&A with Mr. Perlin.

The International Year of Light

On 20 December 2013, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. This International Year will bring together many different scientific societies and unions, educational institutions, technology platforms, non-profit organizations, and private sector partners.

Focusing on the topic of light science and its applications, the UN cited the importance of raising global awareness about how light-based technologies can promote sustainable development in energy, education, agriculture, and health. “Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century. It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society,” writes the International Year of Light website.

As such, the International Year of Light will consist of coordinated activities on national, regional, and international levels. One of the main goals of the International Year of Light will be to allow people of all ages and all backgrounds to gain an appreciation for the central role sunlight has played over the millennia in making life better for humanity through architecture and urban planning; agriculture and horticulture; desalination; solar thermal – water heating, drying, and cooking; and the generation of electricity.

Questions for John Perlin

Meyers: You are slated to be the keynote speaker at COSEIA [Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association] on February 25. What solar issues will you address?

Perlin: My presentation will be based on material from my book, Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy. It will show the five major breakthroughs in solar energy as they have evolved over the last 6000 years: learning where the sun is throughout the year; using that knowledge to design houses to stay warm in winter and cool in summer; trapping solar heat with transparent materials for heating buildings, as well as for horticulture, heating water and desalination; using optics for concentrating the sun’s energy to reach temperatures capable of lighting fires; and the discovery of materials that directly convert sunlight into electricity. The lecture will show that rather than being a twentieth century phenomenon, as so many believe it to be, the use of solar energy is the second oldest energy source after firewood. Attendees will discover that houses have been designed since Neolithic times to scoop up sunlight in winter; that over the last three thousand years people have used solar concentrators to focus sunlight to light fires, during the Renaissance, to solder metal, and by the nineteenth century, to run steam engines; that since the end of the nineteenth century a solar water heater industry has developed and spread throughout the world; and that as far back as the 1870s, scientists and technologists have discovered and used certain solid state materials to convert sunlight directly into electricity. The myriad ways people have benefited from solar energy over the last six thousand years proves we can have a wonderful solar future. If thousands of years ago the Chinese, Greeks, and Romans could successfully harness the sun’s energy, can’t we, with a far superior tool kit, do better, using their work as our foundation?

Meyers: As we celebrate the Year of Light, are world citizens correct in saying we are in the midst of a Solar Age? Please elaborate.

Perlin: As Let It Shine shows different regions of the world have been in the midst of a Solar Age at one time or another over the millennia. Solar, for example, has flourished in different forms in China over the last 6000 years. All ancient Greek builders, whether working in the countryside or in urban settings, solely built passive solar for at least three centuries. Currently, almost all Cypriotes and Israelis heat their water with the sun, as did many in southern California more than a hundred years ago. Today we are at the dawn of a new solar age with the combined power capacity of solar water heaters and photovoltaics at almost 400 gigawatts and solar businesses valued at over $200 billion.

Meyers: You begin this series by writing about Socrates, an early champion of building with the Sun. Why?

Perlin: Socrates was one of the founders of Western philosophy. Aristotle was also an early champion of building with the Sun. His writings constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. Their advocacy of solar architecture therefore places building with the sun in mind squarely in line with western thought. An upcoming article will show Confucius’ interest in solar concentrators, demonstrating that solar was an important topic early on in Western and Eastern thought among the best and the brightest in both cultures.
Here Perlin presents a transcript of Socrates presenting what we would call today a workshop on the strategy and value of solar passive architecture.

Socrates Talks Solar

Xenophon, a student of Socrates, transcribed a talk Socrates gave regarding solar passive architecture. The great philosopher based his interest in building with the sun in mind on the premise that “everything is good and beautiful when well adapted for the end in view, bad and ugly when ill adapted for the same.”

“And so when he spoke about houses,” Xenophon wrote, “and argued that ‘the same house must be at once beautiful and useful’—I could not help feeling that he was giving a good lesson on the problem: how a house should be built. He then pursued the matter by asking, ‘Do you admit that any one proposing to build a house properly will plan to make it at once as pleasant and as useful to live in as possible?’ and that point being admitted, the next question was : ‘Is it not pleasant to have one’s house cool in summer and warm in winter?’ and this proposition also having obtained assent, “Now, a house having a southern aspect, sunshine during winter will enter the interior through the portico [covered porch], while in summer, when the sun is directly overhead, the roof will afford an agreeable shade, will it not? To put it succinctly, in such a house the owner finds a most comfortable retreat year round, making it at once both useful and beautiful.’”

Where did Socrates get these ideas? Archaeology shows that not far from where Socrates lived the first solar retrofits occurred, changing the orientation so all the main rooms faced south. Solar architecture had become so common in his time, that the great playwright Aeschylus could write that a south-facing orientation differentiated the Greek house of his day from the habitations of the primitives of the period, who, “Though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but understood not. But like shapes in dreams, throughout their time, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They lacked knowledge of house turned to the sun, dwelling beneath the ground like swarming ants in sunless caves.

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